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Ken Bloom | USLHC | USA

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What (some) physicists do during the day

This is not strictly a particle-physics topic, but it’s something that I do, and I think it is worth mentioning. The University of Nebraska is committed to making sure as many of the students of this state as possible are ready and able to attend college here. One program that we run as part of this effort is the Nebraska College Preparatory Academy, which seeks to identify students from groups with low college-attending rates (for instance, those coming from families where no one has attained a college degree) and then makes sure that those students get extra attention so that they are on track to attend UNL when they have completed high school. Currently the program works with students in Grand Island (fourth-largest city in Nebraska, about 100 miles west of Lincoln) and students from an Omaha high school can get involved starting next year. Students who complete the program are guaranteed admission and financial aid.

Yesterday and today, 24 students in the program were on campus for a “research conference.” The idea was that students would do some meaningful research during their stay, and then make a presentation on it at the end. (They also stay in the dorm, eat at the dining hall, etc.) I ended up (longish story) coordinating my department’s participation in this. Now, it is a little difficult to do meaningful research in just one day! Our solution was to have the students do one of our instructional lab experiments — a canned exercise, yes, but you can still get the idea of how to do physics, and you can actually get at some fundamental physics reasonably quickly.

This worked out pretty well — the students did good lab work and made nice posters about their experiments, and I think that they learned some of the physics concepts too. One pair of students did an experiment on radiation, where they worked with some weak beta and gamma sources and looked at how distance from the source and shielding affected the counting rates. I asked them what they learned from it, and they said that they are much more attuned to the hazards of radiation. Hmm, maybe not quite the lesson that I had in mind, especially given that the radiation dose that a person who works on a particle-physics experiment gets is usually far, far lower than what they get from background cosmic rays, but still, they seemed excited and challenged. At the end of the day, one of the guidance counselors who came along with them told me that the students really got the point that they have to learn their math if they are going to do this kind of work.

One of my colleagues, from the anthropology department, had kicked off the workshop with a talk on “What is research?” I asked her what she told them, figuring that I could use a few pointers myself. She said that her point was that “research is learning.” Probably so, although I must admit that it reminded me of a quote I heard long ago, which was that when asked “What is physics?”, one talented scientist said, “Physics is what physicists do at night.” It took me a while to really understand what that meant. 9:19 PM; I should get back to work.

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